Seoul layover trip
April 29, 2007 4:01 PM   Subscribe

Making a trip to Seoul during my 10-hour layover. What should I see and do?

I'm going to have a 10-hour layover in Incheon International Airport on my way to Beijing. I've always wanted to see Korea, so I figure this will be my first chance.

I did find another AskMe question asking the same thing, although there weren't many answers. I also found a great article online about squeezing a layover trip to Seoul into this timeframe, but I'd like to hear other opinions from people who know the city well.

I'll be landing in Seoul around 5:20AM - this should be right around sunrise according to I'd definitely like to see Gyeongbokgung, though it doesn't open until 9:30. I'd also like to visit the temple mentioned in the article assuming the monks wake up early enough. But if I get there around 6:30AM, I'm not sure if I could really spend three hours hanging out at a temple. I assume Insadong shops won't be open that early either. Anything else around Seoul you could recommend for the early hours?

I love Korean food, especially kimchi, so I'll want to try a lot of local food. I also enjoy Asian-style breakfasts(rice porridge, fermented vegetables, etc.) - where would be a good place to have a Korean breakfast? Do you think I could eat at the temple? I also want to have lunch in Seoul before I head back to the airport - any restaurants around that are OK with guests eating alone? I love eating all sorts of banchan, and I like all the things you usually find in Korean restaurants - bibimbap, kimchi soup, kalbi. Also, is there a lot of street food in Seoul? What are the specialties?

I only know a few words of Korean, so I'm not really counting on it to get me anywhere, but at least I can read hangeul. Every time I pass through Incheon airport I get mistaken for Japanese, though I don't speak it. I do speak fluent English and Chinese. Will the language barrier be any problem?

My flight leaves at 3PM, so I'm planning on having lunch around noon and heading to the airport, taking subway all the way back to Gimpo and then the bus or that new AREX express train back to Incheon. Think that's enough time?

Last thing - I have heard of a Kimchi museum, which I think is awesome. I visited their website, but there weren't many details on what's inside. Do they have actual kimchi exhibits or kimchi tasting? Anyone been there that thinks it's worth visiting?

Oh, and one more thing - when I first moved out I was obsessed with eating Shin Ramyun all the time. I've seen pictures on Google Images of a truck with huge Shin cups on the back. Is there any place to go to see this, or do I just have to be lucky and catch it driving around? Also, there is an amazingly cool Shin Ramyun pen, although the site doesn't seem to sell it anymore. Could I buy it in Seoul?

Thanks for your advice!
posted by pravit to Travel & Transportation around Seoul, South Korea (14 answers total)
The last thread seems pretty comprehensive, actually.

Breaking down the timings:

1) an hour to clear customs, making sure you've got the appropriate permissions
2) at least 90 minutes to find a shuttle (it's daunting) and get anywhere worth getting to in central Seoul. Taxi would be an option; the driver almost certainly won't speak any English, though.
3) time in Seoul
4) allow 90 minutes getting back, at least, despite what zpousman said in the other thread. It might be faster, which would be fine. It might not, though. Rush hour traffic in downtown Seoul could easily add a full hour or more to the trip time.
5) check-in for international flights 3 hours before departure as usually stipulated. Me, I tend to abide by this rigourously, because I hate to rush.

That leaves you something like 3 hours in Seoul, which isn't bad, but means, given how arduous and time-consuming it is getting around there (I just got back from a biz trip there this weeked), that you're going to have to choose a destination and just go there.

'There' depends entirely on what you're looking to do -- if it's shopping, hit Gangnam and the COEX Mall, of the markets at Dongdaemun for a less modern experience. The upside of COEX is that there are regular airport shuttle buses from the attached convention centre, which also houses the 'Downtown Airport Terminal'.

If it's historical stuff you want, then a couple of the historical sites near Seoul station downtown might be a go.

I'll reserve comment on Shin ramyeon pens, especially since your link doesn't seem to work.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:49 PM on April 29, 2007

sorry, that should be '...or the markets at Dongdaemun...'
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:58 PM on April 29, 2007

Response by poster: The poster in the last thread seemed to be arriving late at night, with a correction made later on that didn't yield many answers. I'm not interested in staying the airport, internet, or nightlife. I'm also not the biggest fan of shopping for souvenirs, though I wouldn't mind walking about a market for a while. I'm mainly interested in seeing the city, historical sites, eating some good Korean food, and doing other neat things that could fit into my timeframe.

About timings, do you really think I will need that much time? I tried making a trip to Seoul last year, although I never got out of the airport because I lost my camera and had to run around back through security looking for it, but immigrating into Korea was really quick - 15 minutes at most. When I was coming back, it only took about half an hour to get through security and back onto my flight - I won't need to check in since I'm just transferring through Incheon and will already have boarding passes.

About traffic in downtown Seoul - the entire trip I plan to walk and take the subway, and perhaps use the AREX train to get between Gimpo and Incheon. Would this make any difference?

Also, the Shin Ramyun pens link works fine for me. It's on the first row of results if you google image "Shin pen".
posted by pravit at 5:44 PM on April 29, 2007

I would err on the side of caution with timings, but that's just me, perhaps.

About traffic in downtown Seoul - the entire trip I plan to walk and take the subway, and perhaps use the AREX train to get between Gimpo and Incheon. Would this make any difference?

I've never heard of the AREX train, and I've lived here for a decade (but not in Seoul for a few years), so I can't opine. Put it this way, though -- Incheon to Gimpo takes upwards of an hour, all in, and Gimpo is still way out in the boonies. You'd be far better off trying to get directly from Incheon to downtown, if that's where you're heading.

Given your preferences, I'd head straight downtown (maybe taking one of the hotel shuttles to one of the major hotels near Seoul station). Make sure you've got a map, and if you're walking around, you can hit a few highlights pretty well in 3 or so hours, I'd say.

Again, based on my personal preference to always leave lots of buffer time, I'd want to be heading back to Incheon (leaving downtown, that is) 4 hours before my flight. Three would be cutting it uncomfortably close for me, less would put me in panic mode.

Your mileage might vary, of course, but I find it's always best to allow for worst-case scenarios. I've gotten through immigration, for example, in a matter of minutes sometimes, sometimes it's taken an hour or more. You never know.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:00 PM on April 29, 2007

As for what to do, I suggest going to In-sa-dong. I wrote an answer in a previous question.
posted by suedehead at 11:16 PM on April 29, 2007

Best answer: I have flown out of Incheon several times and have never left my suburb (1hr-1:15 away from Incheon) more than 3 hours before my flight. I tend not to be a rushed and panicky person and so didn't mind arriving a bit on the later side (3 hours before departure?! That's madness!). In my experience (American passport holder, flown out of Seoul at least 5 times over the last year, including 2 weeks ago) the security and customs is VERY quick. You mention that your flight is at 3pm. If that's on a weekend, then check-in lines might be pretty busy and if not, they'd be pretty quick. Also, are you flying Korean-Air? Their check-in lines is also pretty long. If you're running late, I'd just go up and ask someone around the "special lines" (I believe check-in counters 16-18) and they'll push you through right-quick.
As far as getting to Seoul, definitely do NOT take the subway to Gimpo or Incheon or anything. The shuttle buses are definitely the quickest. I don't remember off-hand whether there are any to Jong-ro or that general area but I'm sure there must be.
As far as sight seeing might go, I would recommend a nice circle as such: get to Jongro-3 station. Get out and go towards Tagpol Park, a nice small park that has lots of old guys sitting around and features a really old pagoda. From then you can walk straight (in the same direction you walked from the subway stop) to and through Insadong and stop in for some tea and porridge and that kind of shit and get whatever trinkets you'd like. I imagine that some places will be open by then. Once you reach the end, hang a left and after 5 or 10 minutes, you'll reach Gyeongbokgung. Walk around there and take as much time as you'd like. I don't recall if there's anywhere within the palace to eat. Adjacent to it, somewhere inside, there's a museum as well you could check out. Then, if you want, you can walk down the main huge street, and after a big block or two, hang a left and walk around the CheongGyeChun (청계천), the artificial stream that goes through Seoul. It's a nice walk. That trip should take maybe 3-4 hours, pending on how long you stop and check things out. From there, I think you can keep going to the market, though it's a fair walk.
As far as food goes, in my experience with Korea the food is good everywhere and special restaurants aren't as big as they are in USA or elsewhere. Most restaurants have signs based on their limited menu (for instance, a galbi restaurant will have galbi, samgyeopsal, and 1 or 2 soups and little else). The street food is great: lots of little carts everywhere with cheap stuff. I'd get some ddeokbokki (떡볶이...and don't forget the 오댕soup). If I were to only have 1 lunch in Korea, I'd pick up some ddeokbokki and 김밥(at any of the million 김밥나라-type places) along the way, and then get a nice, steaming bowl of haejangguk (해장국), since I've never seen that, as good, outside Korea. That's just my preference and is fine to eat alone. You will get some kimchi and other side dishes with it, too.
I've never seen a truck driving with just ShinRamyun, FWIW. There is a restaurant in Jongro-3 (kind of across the road from Tagpol park) that only sells Ramyun and it's a bit fancy. You could check that out if you'd like.
posted by shokod at 5:19 AM on April 30, 2007

Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that the customs stuff I mentioned is easy for an American (no visa for <30 days); I don't know what it is for Canadians and you should, obviously, check that out before you attempt to come in.
posted by shokod at 5:21 AM on April 30, 2007

As far as getting to Seoul, definitely do NOT take the subway to Gimpo or Incheon or anything.

Er, the subway doesn't go to Incheon. Yet. Try to be marginally accurate for the Asker, hmm?

(3 hours before departure?! That's madness!)

That is the standard boilerplate for international flights, worldwide, so yeah. Stupid, maybe, but The Powers That Be will fuck you for random reasons if the stars don't align, and that's one of them. Been there, taken that.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:20 AM on April 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers!

The thing is, I will not need to check-in to this flight. It's a flight from LA to Beijing, with a particularly long layover in Seoul, but it's not like I'm going to have to get boarding passes or check in luggage. I'm just going to go through security and then run to my gate. I'm flying Asiana, if that matters. However, I'll try to get to the airport at least 1-2 hours before departure.
posted by pravit at 8:49 AM on April 30, 2007

Uh, being a transit passenger doesn't usually work that way. I suggest checking out the immigration regulations.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:53 AM on April 30, 2007

Having been in Seoul for a few days last year, I can second the recommendation of Gyeongbokgung. Extensive grounds, a ceremonial changing of the guard in period costumes, and a nice folk museum, plus the scenic backdrop of the mountains.

Also, as noted above, Insadong is a nice shopping district if you're looking for a non-mall experience and you are in search of arts/crafts-type stuff. Also a lot of little restaurants there.

You can always go to the top of Mount Namsan, but I didn't find that to be particularly awesome.

It is true (based on my sample size of three or four) that English-speaking cab drivers are rare. Next time I pass that way, I think I'll try to get some bilingual person to write out some of the places I want to go in the Korean script so I can just show that to the cabbie.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 9:07 AM on April 30, 2007

Response by poster: Uh, being a transit passenger doesn't usually work that way. I suggest checking out the immigration regulations.

Last year I was in exactly the same situation, and I immigrated to South Korea and emigrated ~4 hours later and got on my plane to Beijing without any problem.
posted by pravit at 11:06 AM on April 30, 2007

Stavros, you're right that I was incorrect, but marginally I was correct... I had friends that one time took a trip on the subway to Incheon the city (which is not significantly near the airport), thinking that it was Incheon the airport, getting screwed. That was the point I was making, I just left out the city/airport confusion part as I was tired... sorry for offending.
posted by shokod at 2:32 AM on May 1, 2007

Best answer: Don't mean to self-advertise, but here's how my Seoul layover trip ended up, if anyone wants to use it as a guide:

To sum it up: airport bus is fast and took only one hour both in and out of the city(even during noon rush hour!). I managed to eat some food, see Nandaemun, the Nandaemun market, Gyeongbokgung, and Insadong - I would have had time for more if I had rushed a bit, eaten less, and taken the subway more instead of walking. I left for the airport two and a half hours before the flight left, whizzed through security, and had over an hour left to spare.
posted by pravit at 1:22 AM on June 27, 2007

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